July 14, 2021

Charted: The toll of Covid-19 on health workers' mental health

Daily Briefing

    More than 50% of health care workers reported symptoms of a mental health condition in a survey taken earlier this year, according to a study in CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report—and the toll was heaviest among those who spent more time responding to Covid-19.

    3 ways to help your clinicians heal after a year of Covid-19

    Health care workers report experiencing symptoms of mental health conditions

    For the study, researchers surveyed 26,174 public health care workers over three weeks, from March 29 through April 16.

    They found more than half of participants reported that, in the two weeks prior to taking the survey, they had experienced symptoms of a mental health condition, with 32% experiencing symptoms of depression, 30.3% experiencing symptoms of anxiety, 36.8% experiencing symptoms of PTSD, and 8.4% experiencing suicidal ideation.

    Mental health conditions were most prevalent among health care workers under the age of 30, those who worked at least 60 hours per week, those who were unable to take time off of work, and those who spent more than 75% of their time responding to Covid-19, the study found.

    The researchers also found that 72% of public health workers said they felt overwhelmed by their workload or work-life balance. In addition, 23.4% said they felt harassed, bullied, or threatened because of their work, and about 11.8% respondents said they had been the target of job-related threats.  

    According the researchers, "Increases in adverse mental health symptoms among workers have been linked to increased absenteeism, high turnover, lower productivity, and lower morale, which could influence the effectiveness of public health organizations during emergencies."

    The researchers recommended "implementing prevention and control practices that eliminate, reduce, and manage workplace factors that cause or contribute to public health workers' adverse mental health status" to "improve mental health outcomes during this and other public health emergencies."

    'A lot of us are still dealing with PTSD'

    Even as the country has seen sharp declines in Covid-19 deaths, health care workers in areas with low vaccination rates are still dealing with coronavirus surges—and many find it especially challenging to continue fighting a war that others in the country believe to be nearly won, the New York Times reports.

    Terrence Coulter, a critical care specialist at CoxHealth Medical Center in Missouri, said he and his coworkers were shocked when a surge in Covid-19 cases required the hospital to reopen its Covid-19 unit that had been closed since May.

    "With everyone masked, you learn to read the emotions in your co-workers' eyes," Coulter said. "They're weary and they're also disappointed that the country has started the end zone dance before we cross the goal line. The truth is we're fumbling the ball before we even get there."

    "People don't realize what it was like to be on the front lines and risking your own safety without adequate protective gear while dealing with so much death," Mary Turner, an RN in Minneapolis, said.

    Turner recalled a time when she sobbed uncontrollably in a hospital room while holding a phone for a Covid-19 patient so his son could say goodbye. "A lot of us are still dealing with PTSD," she said.

    Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, an infectious disease doctor in St. Louis, said she experiences difficult emotions when treating people for Covid-19 who have opted against vaccination. "There are moments of overwhelming joy when seeing patients I know who survived Covid, but then I'll treat multiple members of a family with Covid or we will have to intubate someone and you can't help but think this was preventable," she said. "It's heartbreaking, but we're also really, really tired."

    According to Mark Rosenberg, an ED doctor at St. Joseph's University Medical Center in New Jersey, most of the suffering health care workers go through is either unseen or unmentioned. Rosenberg likened the experience to what his father went through after fighting in World War II.

    "My dad didn't like to talk about the war but once in a while he did and what he said was that so many of his fellow soldiers died after they came home," Rosenberg said. "We would now describe this as PTSD, and I see the same thing happening among health care workers." (Wilson, The Hill, 6/25; Smith-Schoenwalder, U.S. News & World Report, 6/25; Fernandez, Axios, 6/28; Jacobs, New York Times, 7/2)

    Access our resources to kickstart workforce recovery

    ImageLooking for help to support employees' emotional well-being, help clinicians navigate moral distress, or hone your own leadership shadow? Explore our starter list of resources below.

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